on K-Pop and P’ansori

This weekend I put together a short playlist of some of my favorite K-pop (Korean pop) sounds of all time.

Using a broader definition of “K-pop” as “popular music in Korea” music (rather than the genre), I chose performances of Korean songs I loved listening to as a child or songs I loved stumbling across on the internet long after I had stopped consuming K-pop as a Korean diasporic.

Something about the production of K-pop changed after the mid-90s for me, and I couldn’t listen to the sound anymore. I was hoping I could figure out what drew me to these “older” K-pop sounds.

While searching for some more familiar K-pop sounds, I was delighted and mesmerized by this medley (it features a cover of Y.M.C.A. by Village People and some great vocal improvisations) from E Pak Sa (“Dr. E”), a Korean “techno-trot” (테크노 뽕짝) artist and entertainer who was popular in the 90s. He also became a celebrity in Japan where he appeared in commercials. While watching and listening to the collage, I was struck by the sound of his voice and his aesthetics.

I was surprised to read in an article on E Pak Sa from Fancy Magazine that he was a trained in p’ansori (판소리), a form of ,traditional Korean folk narrative singing. P’ansori comes from p’an (판) meaning open space or venue, and sori (소리), meaning sound or noise. P’ansori singers are called sorikkun (소리꾼), meaning singer (note: literally sound/noise maker; -kkun denotes occupation or habit). The article goes on to explain that E Pak Sa worked as a Korean tour bus guide and entertainer. I loved learning this because it made me think about how E Pak Sa turned the tour bus filled with middle-aged working-class Koreans into a p’an for his performances. I loved how his performances reveled in the pedestrian origins of p’ansori as a localized popular art form. I ended up watching a Korean network (MBC) documentary on E Pak Sa and his music, and I was struck by the generational diversity of his fan base and their reverence for his work.

After reading the Fancy Magazine article, I wanted to learn more about p’ansori as something that brings together a space and a sound. I watched the following videos:

Three things stuck with me:

  1. P’ansori masters train for years to develop a unique voice and to gain mastery over vocal range and timbre.

  2. It’s common for p’ansori masters to train by a waterfall to listen to the sounds and to draw inspiration from the natural surroundings and view. The singers spend time learning how to embody the sounds of the waterfall.

  3. Pansori masters and virtuosos are deemed as Important Intangible Cultural Property by UNESCO.

I thought about the relationship between space and sound in p’ansori and how the performer embodies space through sound and also creates sound for a specific space created by an audience. I thought about what makes a sound feel particularly “Korean” to me.

As my thoughts turned again to E Pak Sa, his p’an and his sori, I imagined him singing into the roaring waterfall of a packed tour bus hurtling down the Korean highway.